Barnard on Feminism in the 21st Century

Recently, a representative of Barnard College reached out to me with the details of a new initiative that explores what it is to be a feminist in the 21st century. How do young women engage the notion of feminism in art, ideas and activism now? In an effort to explore this question and many others, Barnard College is beginning a new podcast called, Dare to Say the F-Word. In it, issues from identity and perfectionism to why many young women today hesitate to identify as “feminist” will be explored.

At a time when there is so much contention over what the word “feminist” even means, I think this sort of initiative is incredibly valuable, if only as a means to explore, and possibly even attempt to redefine, the word for a new generation.

Rather than go on at length, however, I’m going to provide a link to post written by Barnard President Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power & the Quest for Perfection. In it, she explains that while many women today struggle with the idea of perfection, they also struggle with the concept of feminism itself, which is one of the many issues that will be addressed in Barnard’s new podcast, Dare to Say the F-Word, which I mentioned above. Here’s the link:

Read President Spar’s thoughts in this exclusive post.

While I have my own thoughts on what feminism is and how it functions (or fails) to now, I am personally, very heartened by any effort to explore an ideological issue from a discourse-driven point of view, and it seems to me that Barnard is attempting to engage feminism from just such a place. As a result, I applaud their efforts and very much look forward to seeing what comes of it.

 

On the Nature of Fear

Image from the film, Gaslight (1944).

Image from the film, Gaslight (1944).

Several weeks ago, my daughter had night terror. They are aptly name. She was terrified and it was terrifying to watch. She screamed so hard she couldn’t cry and fought, trying to defend herself. After 5-7 minutes, she calmed down and slipped right back into sleep.

That night, I stayed awake, watching her and thinking. The next morning, she didn’t remember a thing. She went off about her day, happy as a bug. I, on the other hand, was pretty raw. Once I was able to step back, however, her display of what I can only call primal fear, and the empathic recognition I felt, struck me as interesting and made me think.

What is the nature of fear? I don’t mean what purpose does it serve. I mean what is it? At it’s most basic, fear is a response – a response to a perceived threat. It prompts our brains to produce chemicals that induce either flight or fight. This response is innate – people run at the feared object or they run away. Most people lean more heavily towards one or the other. Others have equal access to both. I’m a natural fighter. And that night, as my daughter pummeled away despite stress and obvious fear, she showed me that she is too.

In a film last year called After Earth, Will Smith portrayed a type of warrior who is, literally, without fear. This absence of fear renders him invisible to a species that marks its prey phenomenally. Fear smells good to them. To transcend fear, to somehow rise above and conquer an amygdala level response, is portrayed in the film as the ideal. In fact, the film’s climax centers around the young protagonist’s ability to do just that – eradicate his fear response and defeat the “monster” that was stalking him.  In the film, this ability signals both he attainment of an ideal, and the next level of development for human beings.

It’s a compelling message on the surface. Transcend your fear to the point of eradicating the response. Who wouldn’t want that? Upon consideration, however, I would say that, seductive though it is, it’s a bit of a misleading message.

In reality, fear serves two purposes. The first is obvious – that initial response – flight or fight – that might keep you from getting killed.

The second purpose, though less obvious, is arguably just as important. Fear keeps us civilized. Fear makes us aware of consequences. As in, Don’t jump off that building. You could break your neck, or Don’t rob that bank. You could end up in jail.

Granted, fear also adds an element of risk to those activities and others like them. Therefore, fear could be said to heighten the thrill of doing these things. But for most of us, on some level, fear is the filter that keeps us from being psychopaths. Fear reins us in.

In the end, After Earth implies that fear is a useless emotion – one that a person must transcend. I would argue that fear is neither salutary nor unsalutory. It’s a matter-of-fact response. It’s value correlates to the value of swallowing or blinking. It happens because that’s how our physiology evolved.

Simply put, you cannot choose not to fear. To suggest doing so is to suggest the physically improbable. What you can do, is manage the impulse. You can train yourself to acknowledge fear without attachment, as many Buddhists do. You can teach yourself to channel the adrenaline fear produces into defense. You can learn to dismiss, or channel, or transcend the response once you’ve had it. You can do many things with instinctive fear, but you cannot eradicate it. Realistically speaking, it’s part of our make-up. We might as well not breathe.

My daughter fought, even though she was terrified, even though she obviously didn’t know what was happening and that she wasn’t alone. She fought, and she fought hard. Fear told her to fight. Fear told her to survive. That’s the purpose of fear.

Evolutionarily speaking, fear has kept up from poking bears with sticks, and from eating the berries that killed Old Man Grog. Fear has kept us viable, even though predators with teeth and claws should have destroyed our tender, pink selves. Running. Fighting. That is what fear helps us do.

If the time comes to eradicate the fear response then we will – slowly, over millennia. In the meantime,  it might be more useful to understand fear, and how it functions. Better to accept and  live  comfortably with it, rather than wish, fruitlessly, that it didn’t exist.

A Question: On Women and Homoeroticism

This is really more of a question than a proper post, but I’ve had an idea for an article and I want to solicit some opinions before I write it.

A friend posted a video of two men kissing the other day and the response from women was, shall we say, heated… as in, every single woman who responded thought it was hot. Granted, there was some selection bias, but it was enough to get me thinking. So I did some shallow digging and uncovered a comparatively large cache of media, mostly written, though there’s plenty of visual too, (cheeky little gifs), that cater to women who love watching homoerotic situations and / or gay sex. The fact that M/M erotica and porn do very well with the female demographic, (and not just in the gay community), tells me there’s something there. What I’d love to do is figure out what that something might be.

From a personal angle, I can absolutely see the appeal of watching / reading about two men, (just as many men find the idea of two women to be a fine thing) but I’d like to go beyond “yeah, that’s hot” to figure out why. So, I’m soliciting opinions and thoughts on the subject.

A few guidelines first though:

1. If the thought of two men engaging in sexual contact isn’t your thing, that’s absolutely fine. I know that there are plenty of men and women who would prefer to take a pass. That said, please don’t blast the notion in your comments, because the reality is that there are many people who would take seconds on that dish. Please respect the fact that it’s a personal preference and do not treat the question as an attack on your own predilections.

2. As I mentioned above, I’m keeping the inquiry pretty restricted to women viewing / reading about two (or more) men. If, however, there’s an angle that involves the converse appeal for many men in watching two women, please feel free to mention it.

3. Be respectful. This question involves sex, homoeroticism and certain aspects of voyeurism. As such, some folks may find it uncomfortable. Again, that’s ok. Just be sensitive to the tastes of others. In short, see #1.

Thanks! I appreciate the time anyone takes to weigh in!

Edited 1/28/14: I would just like to thank everyone who has taken the time to weigh in on this subject. I’m leaving the comments open, so if anyone has anything to add, please feel free!

Old Spice Makes It Clear How They Really Feel

I will rarely Reblog or link directly to someone else’s post without adding some thoughts of my own, but this post at Velociriot was too good not to share.

Apparently Old Spice has a new ad out, one that borrows a touch too heavily from Oedipus Rex. It also puts into questionable song an uncomfortably casual disrespect for mothers, girlfriends and women in general, as well as the young men that they love. But don’t take my word for it – head over there and take a look at the original post. It’s a good read and the analysis is sound. Nicely done to folks at Velociriot! (But not you, Old Spice. You dropped the ball on this one).

On Monogamy

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

This is a picture of Nick and Nora Charles, a fictional couple who, for me, defines the ultimate in healthy, committed relationships. I realize that, because they are not real, this statement could easily be questioned – after all, it’s not hard to make an ideal out of people who aren’t real. However, the fact that the fictional relationship of a fictional couple popularized in the 1930’s, (a period of time in our culture when the boundaries of marriage remained highly uncontested), still resonates eighty years later lends weight to the excellence of their example.

For those unfamiliar with Nick and Nora Charles, they are the married protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man. The book was later made into a wildly popular film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick is older and Nora younger, and both appear to be happy in their, presumably, monogamous relationship. In this, they are quite conventional. And yet, this apparently conventional relationship allows for the fact that women find Nick quite attractive. In fact, women love Nick, and Nick, it is implied, has loved quite a few in return. As for Nora, men tend to adore her the moment she opens her mouth, and she, for her part, openly appreciates beautiful men.

And yet, the sexual attraction they both engender in, and display towards, members of the opposite sex in no way threatens their superficially conventional relationship. They treat each other, and their marriage with equal parts respect and irreverence, and they make their relationship work in a way unique to them.

Why do I bring this up? Because the dynamic Nick and Nora share is, in my experience, somewhat rare. Their relationship represents an ideal, one that transcends the monogamy vs. non-monogamy debate currently gaining steam in the United States’ liberal / conservative culture war.

Contrary to the rhetoric on both sides of this particular divide, monogamy is neither “natural,” as staunch proponents suggest, nor is it particularly “unnatural,” (though research into our evolution and biology may suggest that humans were, originally, a harem species like many in nature from lions to gorillas).  Monogamy also isn’t “supernatural” as blogger Matt Walsh suggested in a post defending monogamy’s righteous rightness. What monogamy is, is a choice – a personal choice that is made, either implicitly or explicitly, by individual couples.

Nick Nora Tommy

For some couples, monogamy is critical to the health of their relationship. If both partners honor their mutual choice to remain monogamous, then that is inarguably the best choice for them. Whether they make that choice based on religious faith or personal preference doesn’t matter so long as both partners agree.

For other couples, monogamy could, quite possibly, lead to dissatisfaction in what might otherwise be a very happy relationship. As a result, couples that understand this about themselves and their relationship make a responsible choice in choosing non-monogamy, polyamory, or any other form of open relationship. So long as both partners agree to a set of parameters regarding the open nature of their relationship, this is an equally salutary choice. The critical component is that both partners honor the parameters they’ve set.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a healthy relationship. There are too many variables involved because people are variable. Arguably, the most universal quality shared by members of our species is that we are all individually different. If we were the same, perhaps monogamy, (or non-monogamy), would be the silver bullet. We would have one religion, (or secularism), and there would be little to no conflict over ideology, faith or lifestyle. Very peaceful I’m sure, but also kind of horrible in a culturally dystopic sort of way.

Regarding those who propose that monogamy is the only natural way to love or conduct a relationship, I can only say that the hubris of this viewpoint is astounding. Likewise, anyone who claims that couples engaged in monogamy are either lying to themselves or each other is committing the same error. Non-monogamy doesn’t threaten monogamous relationships any more than monogamous relationships threaten non-monogamy, practically speaking. There is, however, one thing that damages both forms of commitment, and that is dishonesty.

Ironically, what monogamy and non-monogamy have in common is a deep reliance on trust, honesty and respect. Cheating occurs when one partner fails to adhere to the parameters of the relationship they are in. This means that if a man has sex with someone outside of his marriage and fails to tell his wife, that man has cheated, even if the marriage is open. Sex is only a symptom. The dishonesty employed to facilitate sex beyond the relationship’s parameters is the real betrayal, just as it is in instances of so-called monogamous cheating. That dishonesty signals a lack of respect for the relationship and the lied-to partner, and that lack of respect is a killer.

This is why I think Nick and Nora are such a tremendous example of a healthy committed Nick Nora Astarelationship. It wouldn’t matter if their marriage were open, any more than it matters than it is, apparently, closed, (thought there are implications in Hammett’s book, if not in the film, that this may not entirely be the case). What matters is the respect with which they treat each other and their relationship.

Respect breeds trust and implicit honesty, which in turn fosters a dynamic in which jealousy and dishonesty have no place. The fictional relationship of Nick and Nora Charles is an ideal that transcends straw-house arguments and personal ideology. It transcends monogamy and non-monogamy. Theirs is a grown-up relationship, and I believe that, eighty years later, it’s time for the rest of us to grow up.

Marketing Feminism, or Return to Downton Abbey

The holidays are over, which means that, here in the States, the 4th season of Downton Abbey is upon us. If you haven’t experienced the cultural phenomena that is Downton Abbey, allow me to say that, objectively speaking (of course), it’s the classiest soap opera since

Image courtesy of http://blog.zap2it.com

The Cast of Downton Abbey, Season 4

Upstairs, DownstairsEven more importantly, the delight that is Dame Maggie Smith’s performance as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham can only be rivaled by the series’ costume design, which is, suffice it to say, both inspiring and gush-worthy. But I digress.

Despite my gushy lead-in, this post isn’t actually about Downton Abbey. Rather, it’s about how the 4th season is being marketed in the United States. (I’d actually be curious as to how it matches up with the show’s marketing in Britain and elsewhere, so if anyone has comparative insights, please share).

In preparation for the airing of the 4th season’s first episode on January 5th, PBS has been running a number of trailers and sneak peeks, all of which are pretty much standard for the marketing of any film or TV series. In addition to the standard stuff, however, PBS also ran a special called Return to Downton Abbey, in which American film (and feminist) icon Susan Sarandon takes the viewer through highlights from Downton‘s 3rd season while hinting at the 4th.

This special is what I found curious as far as the marketing goes, because it wasn’t selling Downton Abbey on the basis of the show’s plots, characters or even costumes. Rather, it was selling the show based on a feminist interpretation of the script – that behind every strong man (Mr. Bates, Sir Robert, Carson the butler and even Matthew Crawley), there is an even strong woman (Anna, the Dowager Countess, Mrs. Hughes and Lady Mary), and it is the women who, unbeknownst to those rather adorable, silly men, are actually running the show.

Now, to be fair to the special, Downton Abbey‘s primary demographic is women between the ages of 35 and 50, a fact no doubt influenced by the show’s wealth of interesting, intelligent, strong, complicated female characters, most of whom enjoy interesting and complicated story lines. In light of this, calling attention to the women of the show isn’t especially odd, particularly as they are such a deeply woven part of the show’s overall narrative tapestry.

However, what did strike me as slightly manipulative was how the PBS special teased those threads out and focused on them to near exclusivity at the cost of the show’s various other strengths. It was a less-than-subtle bid to appeal to the show’s dominant demographic through the rhetoric of post-modern feminism. In other words, the special was laid out to emphasize the presence of “women as the backbone of the show,” while presenting the male characters in a decidedly less impressive light.

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham

Now, as a woman, I like seeing varied and complicated portraits of women in media. But I also like seeing varied and complicated portraits of men, because both sexes are varied and complicated. One of the reasons Downton Abbey appeals so deeply is that it’s characters, both male and female, and varied and complicated people.

What I question isn’t so much that Return to Downton Abbey underscored the female characters, but that it did so at the expense of the male ones. Sir Robert thinks he knows best, but his wife and mother know differently; while Carson is afraid of the telephone, Mrs. Hughes buys a toaster; and so on. It’s a focal imbalance that’s prevalent in post-modern feminism – that in order for women to be strong, men must be useless, weak, myopic or crippled in some way – and I think it does both sexes a great injustice.

It’s a tired appeal that sprung out of an impulse to make room for women in the 20th century because so much room had to be made for women to develop and exert their various strengths. But we have progressed since Eliza Doolittle needed Henry Higgins to tell her what to do. I’d like to think that we’ve progressed to a point where we can accept intelligence and capability in women as a normal, expected, trait. I’d like to think that we no longer require strength in women to be paired with weakness in men.

Image courtesy of richardsfabulousfinds.com

Strength, wisdom and capability aren’t feminist virtues – not anymore – and a woman who possesses these virtues isn’t extraordinary. She’s an adult. As far as I can tell, being an adult is a distinctly human condition that members of both sexes should now be able to enjoy without the diminution of the other.  As a woman, I don’t want a cookie, (or special, aren’t-you-amazing-and-powerful-just-because-you’re-a-woman marketing campaign) for acting like a grown-up.

The real strength of the show, and the feminist angle that I’d like to see implicit in its marketing, is that the women of Downton Abbey are fully adult human beings, with all of the strengths and flaws and complications that accompany this fact. The real angle I’d like to see marketed is that the women on the show are just as marvelous and interesting and human as the men.

A Merry Midwinter to You

It’s a holiday week, so I’m only doing one post. Enjoy and Merry Christmas.

A while ago… ages ago, really, I wrote an article entitled, “Yule: The Root of Your Christmas Tree”. This was so early in my career as a istock_000019538282mediumthinking person that it appeared in a newsletter that was printed on actual paper and distributed as a hard copy to people who held it, physically, in their hands. At the time, I thought the title was terribly clever and, while I now own that it might have been slightly less clever than I’d initial thought, the idea behind the title carries weight, perhaps even more now than it did then.

And now, the customary disclosure note, because, once again, I’m dancing right into one of the Big Three.

I was raised Catholic and am now a Buddhist atheist. I’ve never had religious faith, nor have I ever missed it, though I can very much see it’s value in other people’s lives.

Now, for all that, I LOVE Christmas, not as a celebration of one man’s birth, but as the current incarnation of a cultural phenomena that goes back millennia and feeds a very primal need in us, as human beings – to connect with each other during the darkest time of the year.

Before Christmas, there was Saturnalia, a Roman festival of light. Predating Saturnalia were a bevy of pagan festivals and feasts celebrating the winter solstice, among which Yule is the most well-known. The traditions associated with these various pre-Christian festivals colored the Christmas celebrations of early and medieval Christians. In fact, nearly all of the elements that signal Christmastime in the Western world, from fir trees and mistletoe to Santa Claus, have their origins in pagan celebrations from Britain, Rome, Germany and even Turkey.

Now, my point in all this is not to suggest that Christmas should not be celebrated as the acknowledgment of Jesus’s birth. I don’t particularly need you to keep the Christ out of Christmas, so long as you don’t mind if I do. My point, rather, is to suggest that human beings have been celebrating midwinter festivals since we figured out that fire is hot and keeps out the dark.

At it’s most basic, the purpose of these midwinter festivals was to unite the tribe / community so that its members could share in each other’s resources and good will. Far from being a frivolous thing, these celebrations were, in many ways, an effort at getting everyone through the long, dark winters alive.

The uncomfortable fact is that the early Church appropriated elements of many non-Christian midwinter celebrations and brought them all under the banner of a sanctioned Christmas holiday. There were many social, political, economic and even spiritual reasons for this, none of which I’m going to address in a post I’m trying to keep under 600 words as a gift to you, dear reader. However,  although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holiday now, it’s slow secularization makes me thing that those pagan, non-Christian origins have great value and are still applicable today.

Ancient pre-Christian principles still operate beneath our current Christian conception of Christmas, and I suspect that Jesus would approve of the message – community, sharing, light in the darkness, survival, love. Human love. I think that’s something we can all – Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, pagan and everything else – get behind, particularly in this time of year.

So, in that spirit, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a marvelous Saturnalia and a peaceful Solstice. May we all be good to each other, protect each other, share our warmth and resources, and wish each other peace. May we all make it happy and whole to the New Year. Cheers.

On Women and Submission

I had originally intended to write on something entirely different today, but I just read a post that got me thinking, so I’m going to tread carefully into the territory of women and submission instead.

Four things up front:

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

  1. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m addressing submission and domination that are consensual in nature. Situations in which there is no consent are entirely different, and merit their own discussions.
  2. Sexual submission and domination are only part of what I’m looking at. What I want to focus on is the impulse – socially, emotionally and sexually – to dominate or submit.
  3. There are dominant women as well as dominant men, just as there are submissive men and submissive women. Many people fall somewhere in between. Because I want to try to keep this from becoming a dissertation, I am looking at the prevalence of the desire (in women) to submit to powerful men, for the purposes of this discussion.
  4. A disclosure. I am not a submissive woman. It’s something of which I’m neither proud nor regretful. It’s just a fact of my personality. So, while many women look at this picture of Loki and get mildly to extremely turned on, I look at it and want to punch his lovely face. Nothing personal. I just won’t be ruled.

These points made, I respect the fact that submission appeals to many women. What’s more, I’m genuinely curious as to why this might be. What is it about submitting to male dominance that, against our own modern, feminist principles, appeals?

And that’s the tension, isn’t it? The 21st century woman is openly, and some might say, defiantly, empowered. We are shattering glass ceilings and railing against the “male gaze.” And yet, BDSM fairy tales, like 50 Shades of Gray that feature the explicit submission of empathetic women to complicated, dominant man, are ubiquitous, while Twilight’s Bella Swan, whose defining characteristic is, arguably, her submissiveness, has become something of a cultural icon, (though not unexamined).

Our culture has recreated women as powerful and empowered, and this is a very good thing. But biology is stronger than society, which is why it may be that, even as women enjoy a new found social dominance, so many are drawn, individually, to fairy tales of emotional and sexual submission, ie: 50 Shades.

Allow me to suggest, up front, that this is not a bad thing. Here’s why. I suspect that submissiveness is an evolutionary trait. I suspect that, through the millennia, submission has served a valuable function, which is why women are, generally speaking, quite aware of social hierarchies, even amongst other women, (I’m looking at you, mean girls). Dominance and submission are something a silent negotiation, a way of placing one person in charge so things get done, rather than having even more wars than we already do.

Following that thread, I’d like to suggest that submission has served women, evolutionarily speaking, particularly well, while dominance has served men. At it’s most basic, submission was (and in many places still is) a type of currency – “I will submit to this demonstrably powerful male and he will protect me and my young”.  We’re animals after all, and just as the males of most mammalian species vie for female attention through shows of aggression and dominance, most human women find dominant males to be undeniably attractive because that dominance signals the ability to procreate and protect. This would extend itself to being turned on, to varying degrees, by sexual domination and submission, quite naturally.

It’s something of a biological script, and those who follow it are, contrary to feminist theory and conservatives alike, simply following impulses that are evolutionarily hard-wired into the human brain. As a woman with a more dominant personality, even I can say that I see dominance in men as fitness marker. While I have no desire to be dominated, it does appeal on a very basic level, as a social indicator, if nothing else.

Biology moves slowly, much more slowly than culture. It may be that in several millennia, our wiring will catch up to our conscious minds, and questions of dominance and submission, and indeed, even of gender, will cease to be relevant. But they are relevant now. A tension exists in the social / sexual power dynamics of our culture. As a result, the relationship between women and submission remains an interesting, even pivotal, one – so much so that those of us who would punch Loki in the face, are, to some degree, aberrations.

All right, I’m looking down five discursive paths as we speak, so rather than get tangled up in an off the cuff ramble, I’ll end this post here. There’s too much to consider. Apologies for the lack of conclusion on this one, but I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts. In the meantime, I welcome comments, thoughts and input on this issue even more than usual.

On Food & Love

To say that we, as a society, are conflicted about food, is to understate the depth of our cultural neurosis regarding caloric consumption. We are a nation that openly fat-shames pregnant women while stuffing our faces with Oreos. And yet, our relationship to food wasn’t always so conflicted. For centuries, when lentils were daily fare and a lord’s feast was very much like a family dinner at Buca di Beppo, food was a glory in it’s basic goodness.

My grandmother was born in Spain and escaped during the Spanish Civil War. In the years leading up to Franco’s regime, she knew what it was to be hungry. Decades later, safe and successful in the United States, she still remembered the profound, human anxiety hunger produces, so when her grandchildren came along, she devoted herself to showing us that she loved us in the most critical way she knew. She fed us.

For my grandmother, food was love. If you loved someone, you fed them, because nothing is more basic than ensuring that someone you love has enough food to survive – it doesn’t matter if that survival is literal, as in “here are some berries to tide you over while you hunt that mammoth”, or figurative as in, “you get cranky mid-morning so have a cracker.” To her credit, my grandmother, though a complicated woman, never failed to make me feel loved, and she did so, in great part, through food.

In diametrical opposition to my very modern fears of getting fat, my grandmother felt that if you had so much food that gaining weight was a worry, then you were doing something right. It’s a viewpoint she shared with many people in her generation – a generation comprised of people who had survived World Wars, the Depression, drought, famine and civil unrest, depending on where they had come from. The nation, at that point, was united by the memory of a common experience – hunger, worry and need.

Today, in the wake of a recession that still, in many parts of the country, feels as if it’s going strong, when people have lost jobs and food stamp usage is high despite budget cuts, this type of hunger and worry are all too common. But it’s common on an individual level. There is a divide between the have and have-not’s in this country and that divide is partially responsible for our conflicted relationship, culturally speaking, with food. We are no longer united under the common experience of lean times, as our grandparents were. And so, while there are many (too many) people experiencing hunger on a daily basis in the States, as a country we’re still high on the hog.

So where are we left us as a culture when food is, generally speaking, abundant enough for us to waste, but healthy food the province of those who can afford it? I’m not entirely sure. Without a large-scale catastrophe uniting us in one common experience, our 21st century relationship to food remains complicated. We want to indulge and lose weight, and the stress of that dichotomy has imbued the topics of food and eating with a very different kind of stress than that our grandparents experienced.

The time may have come for us to change the terms by which we think of food. It is, after all, a necessity that crosses all ideologies and all biologies. While I appreciate my grandmother’s point of view, I cannot embrace the notion that food equates love. It is, however, a powerful way to communicate good will, affection, caring and kindness. It’s a way to build community and take care of others. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and a means by which to nourish our relationships, as well.

So, in this month of tortured indulgence, I propose this. That we do not indulge ourselves with despairing abandon, should we have the luxury of doing so, but rather that we share our food with each other freely; that we accept it with gratitude; that we enjoy it wholeheartedly; and that we eat it in a spirit of thankfulness, and yes, of love.

On Divisive Issues, or The Value of the Big Three

In honor of the holidays, I’d like to take a look at what I’m going to call The Big Three – the three topics of conversation that everyone everywhere knows to avoid at social gatherings, holidays and especially family dinners:

Sex. Religion. Politics.

The Big Three can be, to put it mildly, divisive, and it’s for this reason that they are often studiously avoided in favor of weather-based small talk. They are naturally controversial – unless all of the conversationalists agree. If the majority of people in the room hold them same beliefs, then these issues are a wonderful way to bond and confirm one’s acceptance in the ideological fold. The ideology itself is secondary to re-affirming a sense of belonging; or, to put it another way, it is the conduit through which this re-affirmation is performed. This is a pretty universal phenomena – doesn’t matter if the ideology is conservatism, atheism, bisexuality or Catholic Pro-Choice Buddhist Libertarianism. But I digress…

The point is that, despite accepted wisdom, and in the face of violently clashing ideologies, tons of people dive right into The Big Three, especially during the holidays, family dinner be damned. And this is important, I think.

What makes us bring up gay marriage when we know Aunt Janice believes homosexuality is a sin? Why talk about The Diary of Anne Frank when we’ve heard Uncle Ed say that Hitler “took a good idea too far”? Is it a simple impulse to provoke? To get a reaction? Or is there something deeper at work? I believe that there is and I suspect it comes back to ideology, and the fact that most of the ideologies currently held by humans on this planet involve, in some way, sex, religion, or politics, is just a happy coincidence.

A note before I go on: I don’t oppose ideology. I’m full of ideologies, as are most human beings. To believe in something is, in fact, to be human, so I in no way fault humans for having beliefs. The trouble isn’t in the ideology, but in the inability to see past it, to the views of others.

Okay. As I was saying, I suspect that this impulse to engage The Big Three, particularly in contexts having to do with extended families, roasted meats and lots of alcohol, has to do with both the assertion of our own ideology, and the deep-rooted need to have that ideology ratified by non-believers. Or, to put is simply, to change Aunt Janice’s goddamned mind. This is clearly not going to happen because she feels the same way about you. But we have the impulse to try.

This impulse is important, because it’s an impulse to engage. While The Big Three can, and often do, lead to uncomfortable interactions, they also prompt engagement, rather than the blind ratification of long-held beliefs.

Sex, politics and religion. They provoke and challenge. Their divisiveness prompts the impulse to engage. That is where their potential lies, but their value lies in going one step farther, past simple engagement, to a place of thinking and of discourse, where we can allow our own ideologies to be challenged, even as we challenge the ideologies of others.